5 helpful tips to prove the value of your B2B content marketing

Following my team winning the Content Marketing Campaign of the Year award at last year’s B2B Marketing Awards (#ShamelessHumblebrag ;-), I was delighted to be interviewed by B2B Marketing Magazine earlier this year for one of their print editions. The topic of conversation was how to prove the value of content marketing. Here are the questions and I was asked, and a quick summary of the opinions I offered… 

Before we get to value, a word of caution and a critical word to remember

Firstly, I think the term ‘content’ is potentially harmful. It’s such an all-encompassing word it can mean literally anything or everything that people publish. Quoting Bob Hoffman (aka The Ad Contrarian), ‘it is everything from a Shakespeare sonnet to a picture of my cat’s ass’. And that’s a problem, because I fear that all-encompassing terminology, coupled with a ridiculous amount of hype about ‘content marketing’ over recent years, has misled a lot of marketers into both creating an endless stream of (often boring and typically disconnected) tweets, posts, snaps, Instagram images etc. Worse still, they may believe that, in doing so, they were actually doing some effective marketing.

I fear that a lot of marketers have created (and maybe still create) lots of content for the sake of it. And here’s the real world problem with that… Unless you stumble upon an output that delivers mind-blowingly epic returns, it’s hard to prove value from ‘content’ when you’re just producing it randomly and for the sake of it.

I know it’s stating the obvious, but marketing communications has never been about doing stuff randomly or for the sake of it. It is ideally about stimulating a response from a target audience. Consequently, marketing communications has always been about starting with the response we hope to achieve, and working backwards to figure out how to achieve that response.

My biggest problem with ‘content’ and ‘content marketing’ is that a lot of people start first with the content, and only then figure out how they’re going to use it and what they want to achieve with it. That is a very dangerous trap and must be avoided at all costs. I hate to use words like ‘must’, but I truly think us marketers ‘must’ always start with the desired response. It’s an ageless truth that we must pick the right tool for the right job – not start with the tool. Sometimes ‘content marketing’ is the right tool. Sometimes it isn’t.

Q. How do you prove the value of content marketing in B2B?

Working backwards from a desired response is critical from the perspective of measurement and determining value – because if you don’t know exactly what you want to achieve, how can you measure if you’ve achieved it?

Of course there are many different types of response that us marketers might want to achieve – for example, brand salience, client relationship enhancement, lead generation, persuading trial, successful client onboarding, improving SEO performance, even muddying the waters for our competitors – and so there are many different types of content and corresponding measurement strategy. Here are just a few, split into ‘short-term’ and ‘long term’ areas of focus…

Short-term sales activation

Short-term tactical goals like lead generation and improving natural search rankings lend themselves to easy-to-measure metrics – and in my experience most B2B marketers are doing a pretty awesome job of measuring those. The issue is that our companies often won’t give a damn about the number of marketing leads we generate or our SEO performance. They are, in fact, soft metrics. Because what our companies really care about is what the leads and SEO turn into.

Actual, in-person sales meetings – and proposal / pitch opportunities arising from that – are obvious examples of when most companies start to get excited about B2B marketing output. Most businesses understand the nominal value of pitch opportunities or actual sales conversations, and of course those things are one stepping stone away from measuring profitable revenue.

Long-term benefit

I think the area where more of us marketers struggle is to articulate, in numbers, the value that content brings when applied to achieving longer-term goals, e.g. brand building.

It can take years to build brand awareness and favourability, and it’s hard to demonstrate what specific tactics shift the needle. Boards instinctively know they need to build their brand, but its also a topic that they struggle with because it is so intangible – and because we can’t say with certainty what individual tactics (including individual pieces of content) contributed. Attributing some specific content to a three-year improvement in a hard metric such as market share is bloomin’ tough – which means that we are often instead reliant on soft indicators or proxies that our brand is strong and that content is helping. Some options for that include:

  • Return Traffic to your site has historically been viewed as a soft metric to provide a proxy for brand health. If you’re seeing an increasing amount of return traffic from an increasing amount of the right sort of people, then it’s a good sign you’re onto something.
  • Monitor ‘Share of Voice’ (SOV) relative to rivals and relative to your market share – the IPA historically demonstrated that comparative SOV was a determinant of future growth and brand health.
  • Related to that, likes, shares and other vanity metrics make us feel good, but are meaningless on their own. I’ve not yet seen any hard evidence that they lead to hard business and I’m not a fan of chasing ‘engagement’ for the sake of it (see my earlier comments about focusing on response, not reads). All of that said, my instinct tells me that if your brand’s interactivity rates are far higher than that of your rivals, it can’t be doing your brand any harm – which means it’s worth investing in a low-cost tool to monitor relative engagement levels.
  • It’s more important to conduct a brand audit (i.e. formally research the market to determine brand awareness, salience and consideration) from time-to-time to monitor brand health. Again, it’s really hard to link specific content back to changes in brand health, but if your brand health doesn’t improve over time, you know your content isn’t achieving what you hoped it might.
  • Measure an increase in invitations to pitch over time, or by determining trends in pitch opportunities that have come out of nowhere. Again, it’s really hard to attribute specific marketing tactics to an improvement in pitch opportunities – lots of factors might play a role in that – but it can provide a proxy for brand health. And if your pitch opportunities aren’t growing, you know your marketing tactics aren’t working.

Q. What takeaways can you share from your award-winning content marketing campaign?

My team-mates and I were delighted to win the Content Marketing Campaign of the Year at the 2017 B2B Marketing Awards. While I’m not a fan of the excessive hype that ‘content marketing’ has received over the past five years, content does sit at the heart of much of what we do as a business.

In the case of our campaign (which used videos inspired by classic bank heist movies to communicate our message to banks), we knew that a group of potential customers had a specific challenge they needed help with, and we knew that we could help them overcome that challenge… so we spotted the proverbial win-win. (An important note is that it was both a specific and timely win-win – it was both important and urgent to our target audience). Consequently, in campaign planning, we started with an ideal target segment in mind, a solid insight into both what that segment was interested in and how we could help, and we had a clear view on desirable, measurable campaign outcomes. And all of that meant we knew the specific content we needed to produce, the role of that content for our audience, what we wanted that content to achieve, the response we expected that content to drive, and therefore how we could prove its value.

We produced relevant articles and videos, distributed them heavily on selected channels, and put in place the appropriate metrics to measure if we had achieved our specific goals. That included soft metrics (e.g. read levels and conversion rates on different channels) and harder metrics (i.e. customer meetings held, requests for proposals received and consequent revenue).

We started with a customer need and a desired response and worked backwards from there. In this instance, content marketing was the appropriate tactic. It may all sound like basic, ‘bread & butter’ marketing – and that’s exactly what it was (apart, if I may be so bold, from some high-impact creative execution, a shameless investment in content distribution and oodles of helpful writing ;-).

B2B content marketing example - cautionary tales

Q. In summary, what 5 content marketing tips would you offer to fellow marketers?

  1. Before you do anything, be clear on what role your content is performing, and set metrics accordingly. Never create content for the sake of it.
  2. Short-term, sales activation campaigns must have a hard metric, but the reality in many B2B sectors is that it can’t always be revenue or profit – particularly if buying cycle times are long. So hard (ish) metrics could be sales meetings, demos booked or pitch opportunities with potential customers, which most B2B companies understand have a nominal value.
  3. Don’t focus on vanity metrics such as ‘likes’, but do keep an eye on how your engagement is faring relative to rivals, as a proxy for how interesting / helpful / entertaining / provocative your marketing communications are. Understanding your Share of Voice (across all channels) is helpful in all aspects of marketing.
  4. Find the easiest way to determine brand health. If you can persuade your Board to do a brand audit (even by asking them ‘do you know how many of your target audience have heard of you?’), then it’ll give you an important business benchmark that you can measure against.
  5. Most importantly of all, remember that ‘content’ isn’t always the answer – and it can’t ever be the default starting point for a B2B marketer. Always pick the right tool for the right job. Only some of the time will that be content marketing.

Further reading

See B2B Marketing Magazine’s write-up of the heist campaign mentioned above >

And finally, here’s a bit of a rant about the content marketing cold war >

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